Mountains and Cities: Traveling around Peru

After a brief fair well to Olga and Don angel, I set off for the long ride back to Cuzco. It was nice passing through the pretty backdrop of the sacred valley one last time, complete with beautiful snow capped mountains. 

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Don Angel and his wife Olga on our last day together!

I am glad I had a couple days to acclimatize to the altitude in Cuzco. After a day tying up loose ends, Nathan and I set off for the most popular tourist destination in Cuzco after Machu Picchu, Rainbow mountain.  This hike took us up to 5000m, which made even the smallest incline difficult to climb up. The rainbow mountain range is very aptly named. All of the mountains had reddish soil and green vegetation. Huffing and puffing up the moderately sized hill, Nathan and I passed many alpaca and llamas, grazing beneath the snow-capped mountains. 

Reaching the top, I nearly passed out upon reaching the rainbow mountain. Multi-colored bands of red, blue, and yellow soil lay side by side, making a rainbow. The neighboring mountains were also beautiful with bright red soil. I have never seen a more spectacular landscape, and I spent most of the time trying to capture it with photos from the best angle. We also hiked down to the red valley, which was equally as beautiful as the rainbow mountain, with red and green sloping hills. 

Pressed for time, we ran down the mountain as it began to hail. The mountains looked stunning as the snow gave the red soil white highlights. It was amazing to see such a varied and multi colored landscape all in one small area!


The colors come from the different minerals, such as red iron and yellow sulphur, that are found in the mountains. 

The next day, we set off for Humantay lake. This was a much steeper hike, but it was easier at 4000m in elevation. The heavy rain obscured what I presume to be a nice view, but the lake was still equally beautiful, with glacial streams trickling down to the blue-green lake below. I even filled up my water bottle from the lake, and the water tasted much better than the water from the shower. 


Lake Humantay, a lake made by the runoff from the glaciers on the Humantay mountain, partially seen in the background.

In the morning, we set off on a ~12 hour bus ride to Arequipa, a city to the south. This beautiful Spanish-style city was worth the painful drive; I realized how much I missed being in a proper city. Sidewalks with yellow curbs, streets with sand which shops, and promenades where you could walk without fear of traffic gave the city a more relaxed feel than Cuzco. Nathan said it reminded him of Santa Monica, while it reminded me a lot of Quito, the city I was based in during study abroad in Ecuador. 


The “Plaza de Armas,” or main plaza of Arequipa.

We explored the historic center of the city for a day, visiting the Santa Catalina Monastery. It was like a small city within the city, and I learned all about the lives of the nuns, who from age 12 to their deaths lived within the walls of the confine. The Spanish architecture was beautiful, with bricks white from the ash of the volcanoes surrounding Arequipa. I felt really bad for the nuns, though several dozen still choose to live in the convent today. 

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The halls of the Santa Catalina convent. The red paint rubbed right off the white bricks, so I had to be careful not to brush against the walls

Speaking of volcanoes, we saw many the next day as we went to visit Colca Canyon. We passed several of the volcanoes on the four hour long drive, making for beautiful scenery. We stopped at a small town called Maca, where I tried a pisco sour made with sour cactus fruit! 


A volcano on the outskirts of Arequipa, featuring 2 vicuña feeding in the grasslands. Vicuña are the wild relatives of alpacas, and their brown fur is supposedly just as soft!


A cathedral in the town of Maca.

Without further delay, we made our way to the canyon at the point called Cross of the Condors. Here, we had the chance to see several Andean Condors!


A female Andean Condor. The adults had a wingspan of up to 9 feet! 

The condors enjoy using the thermal vents at this point to spiral upwards, surprising myself and the many other tourists when they appear out of thin air. I really enjoyed watching them spiral upwards, their huge wings leaving me in awe each time. I even saw a male, which has a distinctive crest on the beak.


Try zooming in and seeing if you can see the large comb on this male condor’s head!

After seeing the condors, we meandered our way back to Arequipa, seeing llamas and alpacas, their wild ancestors the vicuña, and a chinchilla jumping across the rocks. Though we had to wake up at 2:30AM to go on the trip, it was definitely worth it to see the Andean desert landscape and its unique wildlife!


An alpaca on the farm we drove past on the return trip to Arequipa.


Machu Picchu: A Shining City Upon a Hill (3/3)

After completing this circuit of the ruins below, the thick fog had cleared and left us with a beautiful view of the valley. We took advantage of the weather to summit up to the House of the Guardians, a reconstructed house up near the best view of Machu Picchu. Here, we were able to take a bunch of “classic” Machu Picchu photos that had both the ruins and the mountain,Huaynapicchu, in the background.

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The Krauss brothers at Machu Picchu! 

After taking in the gorgeous view, we continued on towards the other side of the cliff. Looking out, we could see the hidroelectric dam. At that moment, I realized just how far we walked to get to Machu Picchu and decided to take the train back. The trail crawled along the side of the cliff, and at some points looked like it was a long way down. There were other people passing by, so I had to step to the outside to let them pass. At one point, my legs just froze as I was so close to the edge. I’ve never really been scared of heights before, but at that moment I couldn’t move even if I wanted to. At the end of the path was a frail bridge that joined the two sides of the cliff-side trail together. We weren’t allowed to cross it, just look at it. The bridge was very narrow and made of thin wood. The Inca must have been very brave to cross it.

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The Inca Bridge. I was a bit relieved that we couldn’t keep walking down the cliff-side trail!


Wanting to take advantage of all the ruins in the park, I headed up solo to the Altar of the sun, a temple up Machu Picchu mountain. Though the walk was long and tiring, the view from the top was spectacular, and I got a full perspective of all the places I had gone in the area.

On the way back we decided to take transportation the whole journey. Though we had to wait around for the next train out, and get bitten by all the fruit flies, it was worth it. We sped down the trek, Nathan and I seated at the very front. I felt like a celebrity with everyone taking photos and waving as the train sped on. We zoomed by hikers, and the way back seemed much shorter as we quickly passed all of the points where we walked by on the way to Machu Picchu. I waved goodbye to the ruins of the city on top of the hill for the last time, wondering if I would return.


Machu Picchu: A cloudy welcome (2/3)

The trail along the train tracks passes through unique landscapes covered in dense cloud forest. Several sharp peaks are surrounded by a large mountain range, giving Machu Picchu its iconic look. The rocks are interesting colors, looking like a drip paint wall. Some of the boulders in the river were smoothed over, appearing soft after being eroded by water for many years.

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Finally, after walking for five hours, our weary team approached the mountain that contained Machu Picchu. The scenery was stunning, and the cliff walls were covered in bromeliads, hanging plants typical of the cloud forest. Not much further down the path was the town of Aguas Calientes, where we stayed for the night before heading to Machu Picchu in the early morning.


Bromeliads, hanging on the cliff walls, marked our arrival at Machu Picchu.

When we arrived at 5AM, the line for the bus up to the ruins was already long. Really long. I felt like we were in Disney World. We didn’t make the first round of buses for Machu Picchu, but we were finally able to board a bus after waiting an hour and a half. The ride up was magical, with thick fog swirling around the sharp mountain peaks. When we arrived at Machu Picchu, we couldn’t take in the view for more than a few hundred feet. This gave us the chance to view the ruins up close and personal, and spend time with some cute llamas roaming the grounds.

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Making friends with a baby llama before exploring the ruins of Machu Picchu.

The city was huge. Each building was put together very meticulously, with some carefully carved rocks placed together like a tetris board. Some of the boulders used were huge, and I can’t imagine how the Inca (or their slaves) built such a fortress. They used handles to carry the rocks, before smoothing them down in the building.

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An example of the intricate Inca architecture.

We visited the temple of the sun, which was distinctive in that it had a roof and an altar for sacrifices by the king and his guards. We walked down towards Huaynapicchu, the iconic, mountain peak in the background of every machu picchu photo. Here, we passed a large field, where celebrations and other festivals were held, with plenty of room for spectating on the sides.


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The large field in the center of the ruins, perfect for having a party! The ruins in the background are called “The three doorways.”

We also passed lots of altars and the astronomical observation deck, complete with a sundial . Near the edge of the city were reconstructed houses and a sacred rocks fashioned in the mold of a sacred mountain, Apu. We kept walking through the three doorways, which left us lost like in a maze. We stumbled upon some archeological equipment, and I reminisced on my days working with the siv on archaeological projects in Houston my sophomore year.


By this point, the intense fog had cleared and the sun shone bright. At this point, I was determined to get a great view of Machu Pichu and headed up towards to the other end of the city. Did I make it? Was I able to take the classic postcard photo of Machu Picchu? To be continued…


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My inner archaeologist got very excited when I saw this common tool used for sifting through dirt to find artifacts. So cool that they are still making discoveries at Machu Picchu!

By this point, the intense fog had cleared and the sun shone bright. I was determined to get a great view of Machu Pichu and headed up towards to the other end of the city to photograph the best angle of the ruins. Did I make it? Was I able to take the classic postcard photo of Machu Picchu? To be continued…





An Unconventional Inca Trail (1/3)

Every day at around noon, dozens of tourists pass by the Yellow River hostel in Quellomayo, where I have been staying for the past month conducting research on the Andean cock-of-the-rock. They walk past with their legs torn up by insect bites and faces painted with red ochre, a plant product which acts as a natural repellent, though it is not quite as effective as DEET. This past weekend, I finally got the chance to be one of these tourists.

Because I am living so close to Machu Picchu, I sacrificed the conventional guided tour in favor of walking and public transport. However, the trail was not so easy, which was surprising given that so many tourists walk it every day.

I set off down the first leg of the path with my brother and Paul, a volunteer from South Africa who is helping out on the project. We walked down the river away from the hostel, passing several streams and crossing a bridge. It was wonderful to hike alongside the river that I had been admiring from a distance for the past month.


The river. Photo credit: Nathan Krauss

After walking for about an hour, we realized the trail was getting thinner and thinner. Eventually, we came to a point where we couldn’t walk any further. Carefully walking along the edge while simultaneously avoiding the wasp nests along the cliff-face, I reached a point where I could jump down to the river to continue the rest of the path. I say “jumped,” but I really just fell down and managed to catch myself by jumping. Nathan and Paul managed to climb down much more gracefully then I did, and we continued on the other side of the trail. I’m not quite sure where the trail was supposed to go, but I am impressed by how many tourists are expected to do that every day!


The wasp nests along the cliff face. Photo credit: Paul Kriedemann

A little bit further down the trail we stumbled upon the cable-car crossing. Unfortunately, the man who usually offers to pull passengers across the river to the other side on the small cart was out for lunch. I began pulling on the rope to reel in the cart across the ravine, getting grease all over my hands. Realizing there were no other options but to continue, I tossed my bag in the cart and jumped in. With a gentle push from Paul I went soaring out over the river below. The experience was exhilarating, but I have to admit I was a little relieved when the cart reached the other side. Nathan and Paul followed soon after, and we continued through a spooky tunnel filled with bats and insect-eating birds.

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Nathan crossing the river!

On the other side of the tunnel lay the Cocalmayo hot springs, where all of the tourists relax before continuing on the trek. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to try them out, so we hitched a ride up to Santa Teresa. We crammed into a tuk-tuk, a clown-sized car used for local transport. I was over-heated and squished in the car, but it was amusing riding around the windy roads in such a tiny vehicle.

After a brief lunch in Santa Teresa, we negotiated a ride to the hydroelectric dam, the final stop before arriving in Machu Picchu. From here we set off on our beautiful 11km hike, not realizing how difficult the journey would be. We walked for hours along the train treks, which meant walking on top of lots of uneven rocks and sore feet. Fortunately, the beautiful view helped distract from the pain. Crossing the limit of the park, we entered a valley surrounded by colorful, steep mountainsides thick with vegetation. I felt like Indiana Jones, scanning each mountain peak for signs of the lost Inca city. It wasn’t hard to believe that just 100 years ago an explorer stumbled upon the ancient city of Machu Picchu in this same valley.

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Did I make it to Machu Picchu, or did I give up from exhausted feet? Tune in later this week to learn about the rest of my journey to Machu Picchu!


Teaming up with my brother has been pretty great! Nathan, my cinematographer brother, came all the way to Peru to film the Andean-cock-of-the-rock and their mating display. He has gotten some pretty amazing footage so far, and I can’t wait to see the final product!

I’ve really enjoyed having him in the field with me. Not only is he a great companion, but also he makes the long days in the forest much more exciting with his camera operations. Making a documentary sure isn’t easy; some days, he spends hours filming just to get one good clip. However, he is getting better and better at following the birds and anticipating their movements to get the perfect footage for his film.

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Nathan and I at the lek together. Very sleepy after waking up at 4:30AM every morning!

We’ve been pretty busy working back-to-back visits to the lek twice a day in order to maximize the amount of time Nathan has to film. All of the early mornings have been hard on me, causing me to get sick last week. However, we get to rest in the mornings once we come back from the field, which helps.

The best part about having my brother with me in the field is the quality time we get to spend together. Watching all of the TV shows he brought with him during down time and having deep conversations in the forest have brought us closer. I’m really excited to work hard the rest of the week and reap the rewards of an amazing film!


Peru has more bird species than any other country in the world. Because of this, I often see beautiful birds while walking around or driving to and from the field site.

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A Cinnamon flycatcher (Pyrrhomyias cinnamomeus) is one of over 1800 species of bird that can be found in Peru, and one of my personal favorites! 


Also for this reason, the driver thinks each new bird we see is a new species before I identify it in the Birds of Peru book. Tino, the driver, is currently the only one working with me on the project for the past week. Our mission? Trying to find out what makes the cock-of-the-rock behave the way they do and why.

Just like we don’t enjoy sitting out in the pouring rain, neither do the birds, who seem to be affected by heavy rain. For this reason, I am taking the temperature and humidity to see how the weather affects the mating display of the birds.

I am also trying to find patterns in their activity. I categorized each part of the cock-of-the-rock’s dance and mating display so that I could count each time I see a particular behavior. With these data, I will be able to see what factors affect the mating display and how it changes across sites.


What makes these birds gather in groups of over a dozen some days and not others? That’s what I’m trying to find out!

The other day I saw an agouti, a large rodent that lives in the forests of much of south america. He quickly wattled away before I could take a picture, but he was very fat, most likely from eating the crops of nearby farms. I have been touring lots of farms, called chakras, to build relationships with people in the local community and to show them that having foreigners around isn’t so bad. This involves lots of walking around and seeing lots of coffee and avocado trees, which gets boring after a while. However, many beautiful birds visit these farms, and sometimes the farmers give me avocado or other fruits to take with me!

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A Turquoise Honeycreeper (Dacnis cayana), another one of my favorites, seen while touring a chakra in the community of Pacbapata.

I am currently the only one staying at the hostel in the village. While it is getting kind of lonely, I sometimes get the chance to eat dinner with the owners, Don Angel and his wife Olga. Though she has been going on lots of business trips to Machu Picchu lately, I’ve really enjoyed the conversations with Don Angel about life in Peru and the community here. However, I am very excited for my brother to come next week for the company and for our exciting collaboration.

After a month on this project, I’ve already seen lots of changes. Pacha, the kitten I am taking care of, has doubled in size. Some eggs that we saw on our first hike have hatched into chicks. And I have grown, in my patience that’s needed with birding, and in my ability to adapt and build upon a demanding project. It’s been a month filled with working to establish a study, itching with lots of bug bites, and lots of early mornings.

However, it’s also been a month filled with beauty. Early mornings allow me to see bats, nightjars and other nocturnal birds. The sky at night has also been clear lately,  and I’ve been able to see and learn some new constellations of the southern sky. The rolling hills always offer incredible views, and the Salkantay mountain peeked out of the clouds this morning.  I can’t believe how lucky I am to have been living at the foothills of Machu Picchu for the past month, and I am excited to see what my last month on the project brings.

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Salkantay mountain. This field site definitely has the best landscape views!

A Break From Routine

My friend Kay happened to be visiting Cuzco last week, so I took the chance to get out of the forest for a day. The plan was to meet at Ollantaytambo (meaning “place of the Incas” in Quechua), an Inca fortress, then go from there to Marras and Morray, the most popular sites in the Sacred Valley. Unfortunately, the best laid plans often go astray.

First off, the driver who dropped me off along the main road told me to take a collectivo (shared van) to Ollantaytambo. This took about 3 hours, as opposed to taking a 2-hour taxi ride over the mountains. My friend waited patiently for me to arrive in Ollantaytambo at a cafe, which surprisingly had a great view of the ruins.


The ruins of Ollantaytambo, an Inca fortress.

After reuniting, Kay and I set off immediately for the archeological site of Morray to make up for lost time. We spent a while trying to find an inexpensive ride to the ruins from Ollantaytambo, but luckily some Italian tourists came along and negotiated for all of us to ride for 10 soles a piece (~$3). The ride to Morray took a good while, and I started to get a bit nervous as the driver took us off road, but the beautiful view of the snow-capped mountains and soaring birds of prey made up for the chaos.


With views like this, I felt like I was on a scenic tour of the sacred valley.

Finally we arrived in Morray. It turns out you have to pay for the entrance fee for all of the ruins just to visit one. Deciding that the visit to one ruin site wasn’t worth the cost, we decided to head out with the same driver to the Marras, or salt mines.

The salinas (salt mines) at Marras were fascinating.

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The salt mines of Marras. 

Hot water mixed with salt from the mountainside is channeled down different streams across large terraces. The salt water coats the rock and causes the salt crystals to grow. Each section of the terrace appeared to be a different color, ranging from white to a blue-ish hue depending on the pigment of salt grown. The salt is then harvested by hardworking miners, who scrape the salt crystals into buckets to be processed. Apparently, the salt mine has been in operation since Inca times, and it is still open for the community to use.


Harvesting the salt from the terrace is hard work!

The view was also impressive.Walking around the salty terrace was surprisingly beautiful, with all of the salt crystals glowing in the sunlight beneath a towering mountain. This destination made all of the hectic travel worthwhile, and I got to share it with some pretty great company too.

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Kay and I at the salt mines. I didn’t realize how extensive they were until we arrived at this viewpoint!

Afterwards, we headed back with the same driver (who waited for us for a small fee) to Uribamba, the largest nearby city. From here, Kay and I parted ways after a long day catching up and seeing some beautiful views. Though taking a car often involves waiting for 30-40 minutes for other passengers to fill it up, I learned that it is the best way to travel here.

I was mesmerized by the view on the way back. Not only was the car ride much quicker, but the setting sun cast light on all of the mountains and glaciers that I didn’t notice on the way in due to the cloud cover and heavy rains. I was in awe, and it was a nice distraction from the inevitable motion sickness I felt from the winding road through the mountains. Unfortunately I was too nauseous to get a good photo, but I saw some alpaca on the roadside, which more than made up for the discomfort.

While it was tricky doing a day trip to the sacred valley, it was worthwhile to take a break from the bird-watching routine and meet up with a good friend.


The Project

Watching the cock of the rocks dance is incredibly entertaining. The males start by arriving one by one to the main site, forming an aggregation called a lek. They fly from branch to branch, bobbing their head and squawking, hopping, jumping up and down, and flapping their wings to attract the female’s attention. I love the way they cock their heads to the side and vigorously flap their wings as they glide around the branches. The males let out a cacophony of noise when a female visits the leks, and they often fight to get to the best spot to impress the female.

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A male Andean Cock-of-the-Rock (Rupicola peruviana) scanning the area for a female. 

I am counting how many are visible or audible at any given time to determine their “peak activity.” So far, the most I have seen at one time has been 12 males. This information can be used to inform future ecotourism ventures as to when would be best to visit the lek. I am also noting any food they eat in order to study their feeding ecology.

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A male cock-of-the-rock watching me. I’m not the only one doing the observing! Another part of our project will be to assess the affect observing them has on their behavior. 

As a side project, I am also surveying the surrounding area for birds to get an idea of what species future conservation efforts will be protecting. In order to get an accurate survey, locations were chosen based off computer-generated points to maximize the different habitats sampled in each area. One of the areas includes beautiful cloud forest, with hummingbirds buzzing around tall tree ferns. At this site I also saw a motmot, a bird related to the legendary Quetzal, with a long tail that swings like a pendulum.


The highland motmot, Momotus aequatorialus, on a branch in the cloud forest. Apparently they are very territorial, so hopefully I will see this guy at the same spot sometime in the future!

Another survey area is located along the river near the hostel where I am staying. I woke up at sunrise to record the wrens and different colored tanagers spotted as I scrambled over the rocks. Even though it is painful waking up so early to see these birds, hopefully I will get used to it.


The river near my hostel. Lots of cormorants, tanagers, and swallows can be seen at this site.

I am also getting some insight into community relations. The people who live here are generally skeptical of foreigners, and most outsiders are treated with suspicion. For this reason, we had lots of meetings to discuss the terms for visiting the lek thats on a local community’s property and coming to an agreement with the community leaders. The director of the organization I am working with negotiated with the community members  and organized payment to make sure the benefits of the arrangement were reciprocated. It is exciting to see conservation in action, and this is just the start to a long-term ecotourism project to benefit these communities.

First Impressions

Cuzco isn’t what I expected. I spent my first few hours waiting 3 hours for a SIM phone card, had an chicken empanada that was more like a chicken pot pie, and saw that the markets had mostly the same stuff as those in Ecuador. However, I really like the beautiful cathedrals that mark the central plazas and the stone walkways that give the city a historic feel.


The next day, I traveled four hours by car through winding roads, climbing up to 15,000ft in altitude. Though it was difficult to breathe, the views were also breathtaking, passing through mountains covered in snow. I stared out the window, admiring the green cliffs and Incan ruins we passed by.


Sheep passed by as the car drove through the snow-covered mountains

It began pouring rain as we descended from the mountains. I wasn’t too worried until the driver crossed himself for the second time before making a sharp turn into a cloud. Once the fear subsided, the swaying motion of the car going down the curving road lulled me to sleep.When I awoke, the landscape had changed from the Andean mountainside, decorated with yellow flowers and agave, to tropical cloud forest. Bromeliads and mosses hung from the trees, and the valleys were deep and covered with vegetation on either side of the river.


A typical view of the cloud forest

The car stopped abruptly, as we noticed vehicles had stopped ahead of a sharp turn. We stepped out to investigate alongside the tourists piling out of the vans to see what was going on. It turns out all of the rain made the road too muddy for the vehicles to continue onwards. The road was too dangerous for the car I was in to continue any further. I was told I would have to walk the rest of the way! Luckily, my driver found another car willing to take me a bit further down the road, so I only had to walk for about 10 minutes before I arrived at the hostel.

The Yellow River lodhe, where I am staying, is a nice cabana-style hostel. The owner, Olga, is a wonderful cook and her husband, Angel, helped me wash my the mud off of my shoes. There are several cats and dogs and even a kitten!


My new kitten, Pacha, meaning “Earth” in Quechua.

I am excited to begin my project soon and to start my life here in the cloud forest of Peru!